The National Allotment Society begins its monthly task list with a straightforward and clear direction: No time to rest. I can't help but think about the deep satisfaction these spaces afford people under normal circumstances, and I am sure the nurturing, forward planning and physical labour they demand is even more welcome at present. As we have become increasingly confined to our homes and neighbourhoods, to have a space to dig and plant and water and watch seems a luxury.
My dear friend Andy has tended his allotment in Cambridge for well over a decade and although I must confess I'm a mere spectator (and occasional beneficiary of seasonal harvests) I do feel a connection to the place. Somehow, I find myself invested in those seasonal shifts, the weather, the frosts and the harvests, albeit from afar. Managed by the City Council the Empty Common Allotments are bordered by two running brooks and sit alongside the Cambridge University Botanic Gardens. Concealed from the outside by a proud and protective row of established trees the Empty Common has been feeding the bodies and minds of Cambridge residents for almost a century.
From the perimeter it would be difficult to determine that this rich stretch of land is host to over forty-seven plots cultivated by dedicated residents and home to an array of birds, bees and other wildlife. In Richard Jefferies' Nature Near London (1883) his description of the brimming brook evokes images of the currents that run beside Empty Common. the water gleamed as though polished where it flowed smoothly, crossed with the dark shadows of willows which leaned over it. By the bridge, where the breeze rushed through the arches, a ripple flashed back the golden rays, he writes. Vicar's Brook at Empty Common is like that; it is possible there to catch sight of the crests of wavelets through branches and dense thickets as the water flows past the allotments to join Hobson's Brook downstream. The Fenland waterways run through the city and neighbouring villages; the presence of water in these parts is undeniable.
Andy kindly provides me with regular updates on the progress of crops; the gooseberry harvest, the rhubarb, the French beans and the asparagus crowns. It always strikes me that the allotment gardener is sensitive to the seasons in-between the main events of spring, summer, autumn, winter. Many cultures name these as micro-seasons: the Japanese calendar, for example, was traditionally divided into twenty-four seasons each of which has three phases, resulting in a total of seventy-two micro-seasons in a year. Each cycle in this Japanese classification is named for a unique weather pattern, flowering shrub or bird song. The rhythm and measured flow of the seasons are observed with a keen respect for the life force of nature; the atmosphere's small adjustments characterise change and move forward with all their twists, turns and challenges.
The second stage of Frost Falls', is known as Kosame tokidoki furu roughly translated as Light rain sometimes falls where the weather is changeable, the intermittent rain and cold winds indicate an edging towards winter. I am sure gardeners everywhere tend to mark their calendars in such a nuanced way, anticipating the subtle changes and necessities associated with tending to the land, especially crops of seasonal fruit and veg. Regardless of the weather forecast, the list of jobs remains. Increasingly I notice how many people seem keen to declare it's summer!' just when spring has commenced its elaborate and detailed cycle. I suspect it is related to the desire for a change in temperature, a slightly warmer day and suddenly it's summertime. Still, I feel a certain protectiveness over the seasons and hope they continue to occupy a firm place in our cultural imagination: the ritual, music, poetry, art and meals created in honour of the turn to spring, or icy winter mornings.
Evelyn Dunbar's oil sketch Sprout Picking, Monmouthshire, 1943, documents the efforts of the Women's Land Army working in the Welsh countryside. Beneath a mid-winter's sky, Land Girls harvest sprouts. In a choreography of sorts, their bodies are doubled over the neat rows of stalks. Blending into the landscape the women are dressed in shades of green with scarves and pointed hats to cover their ears and keep their heads warm. As they work their way closer towards us, we anticipate their upward glance. Perhaps in an effort to straighten out they place a hand on their back and, opening out their shoulders, take a deep breath. There is so much movement and rhythm in this small image; dove grey clouds linger around a radiant sun as it sits low in the apricot-buff sky, and the horizon line is painted three strips thick in varying tones of slate, with the tips of the bare hedge defined with a frosty halo. The helical pattern in which the buds grow on the stalk is obvious only to the Land Girls as they stoop over to collect leaves and sprouts. Perched slightly above ground level, our view sees only the last of the daylight catching on the top of the plants. Dunbar's other paintings of the Land Girls outdoors pea-picking, potato sorting, threshing and bailing, show an interactive and lively group engaged in the demands of agricultural labour.
On the topic of sprouts, it would seem most people have a view on them. I once shared a thanksgiving meal cooked by the talented and passionate Fanny Singer when she was living in London. The occasion was accented with so many charming and personal gestures. Two long tables were joined together stretching across rooms and decorated with cotton napkins, delicate little posies from the garden, polished brass candlesticks and hand printed and coloured menus and place cards. The dreamy cosy setting was memorable and after all these years I can say that the Brussel sprouts were outstanding, some of the most flavoursome I have ever eaten. At dusk, between courses, the entire dinner group went for a stroll around the neighbourhood. It was such a memorable interlude: full of delicious food and love we quietly drifted the neighbourhood streets. I am forever grateful for the meal I shared that evening. Tipsy on champagne I took the last train back home to Cambridge, wishing the experience could have stretched out longer in real life. With delight I notice that Fanny has included a recipe for Brussel sprouts in her culinary memoir Always at Home, A Daughter's Recipes & Stories (Seven Dials 2020).
Allotment and kitchen gardens commenced the gradual change to their winter state a few moons ago and in perfect sequence the next crop begins to surface. The butterfly count has slowed down, and other various jobs that kept gardeners occupied over the summer months such as deadheading the marigolds to keep them bushy no longer need full attention. And now as the temperature drops we welcome that craving for a return to warm meals prepared and cooked in measure with what is on offer, what is harvested for us, and by us. The warmth of the winter palette will linger on our tables until it naturally coasts into spring.
Words by Olivia Meehan.
Photography by Andrew Maybury and Grace Alexander, taken in Grace's cottage garden in Somerset. Her unique collections of cut flower and plant seeds have been curated for TOAST; some yielding wonderful colours for natural dyeing, and some in fresh palettes of greens and whites.
Painting courtesy of Manchester Art Gallery. Evelyn Mary Dunbar (1906 - 1960), Sprout Picking, Monmouthshire, 1943, oil on canvas, 22.8 x 23 cm Manchester Art Gallery, 1947.428 the artist's estate.